Monthly Archives: October 2013

How Much Tea?

With all of these posts about my tea making process, I realized that I hadn’t ever said much about the amount of tea that I’m using. Time and Temperature are very important factors when making tea, as well as the tools you are using. But the amount of leaf in your pot can have just as much of an effect on the finished product and the steps you take to get there.

My general guideline for a 150-200ml pot or gaiwan is about 4g of leaf. Ah, but what if you don’t have a scale? In fact, I almost never use a scale myself, so not to worry, with some experience you can make a pretty good guess.

The first rule of thumb is to just cover the bottom of your brewing vessel with a layer of leaves until barely any of the surface is showing. This is almost always an accurate measure for a gaiwan (of any size!). Secondly, you need to think about the tea leaves themselves. This is the part that trips up even the seasoned tea devotee.

Why the difficulty with this measure? Because different teas are dried differently. A full leaf white tea takes up about 5 times the volume of a rolled oolong. And a small chunk of Puer can weigh as much as a whole package of black tea. A finely cut Japanese green tea can weigh twice as much as a green Chinese leaf.

To help with this conundrum, I’ve taken photos of different teas, each measured to 4g for comparison.

Tai Ping Hou Kui, a "Fluffy" Green

Tai Ping Hou Kui, a “Fluffy” Green

The key to getting the right amount of leaf is just considering the density of a tea before you brew it. These are the density categories I use: Fluffy, Fine, Twisted, Rolled, and Dense.


Bai Mu Dan, a "Fluffy" White

Bai Mu Dan, a “Fluffy” White

Full leaf white tea, many full leaf Chinese greens (except Liu’An Guapian), some Chinese (generally Yunnan golden needle) black tea, a few oolongs (Bai Hao).

Use more leaves than you think.


Ping Shui Ri Zhu, a "Fine" Green

Ping Shui Ri Zhu, a “Fine” Green

Japanese greens, any broken tea (a damaged full leaf tea or tea bag tea no matter how high quality the bag supposedly is).

The trick here is to use more leaves than you think but brew them very gently. Use cooler water around 70c or lower and keep infusion times very short (5 seconds to 1 minute).


Bao Zhong, a Twisted Oolong.

Bao Zhong, a Twisted Oolong.

A few Chinese greens (notably Liu’An Guapian), many Oolongs from southern China and Taiwan (not rolled into balls), some full leaf twisted black tea (notably no. 18, Sun Moon Lake, Qi Men, Dian Hong, Darjeeling first flush). I also put loose Puer in this category.

A medium amount of leaf, just covering the bottom of your infusing vessel.


Ali Shan Jin Xuan, a Rolled Oolong.

Ali Shan Jin Xuan, a Rolled Oolong.

Most Taiwan oolong (except Bai Hao and Bao Zhong), a few Chinese greens that are rolled into balls (except Zhucha/gunpowder).

A small amount of leaf, not quite covering the bottom of your infusing vessel. These teas tend to expand a lot (I’m always surprised how huge they get) and if the leaves become so packed that the tea cannot move around, the flavors will be blunt, strong, and boring.


Lao Shu Bing Cha, a Dense Sheng Puer

Lao Shu Bing Cha, a Dense Sheng Puer

Brick Puer, gunpowder green (Zhucha).

While it’s certainly possible to use a small volume of leaf for these teas and steep for 2-3 minutes, I prefer to use a medium amount and do very fast infusions (5 seconds to 1 minute).


As you might be able to tell from my notes, the more leaves (by weight), the faster and stronger the tea will infuse. Using lots of leaves just means that you may need to decrease the infusion time (or the temperature) to keep the tea from becoming overly strong. If you steep a tea for 10 seconds and it’s unpleasantly bitter (something that happens to me all the time), then you really just have too many leaves in the pot. Similarly, if steeping a tea for 3 minutes gives you no flavor at all, you may want to add some more leaf.

As with any “rules” surrounding tea brewing, keep in mind that these are just suggestions based on my experience. Your taste may vary considerably and so it’s vital that you experiment to find the time, temperature, and quantity that fits you best.

2011 Shan Lin Xi from Wu Siou Nature Farm

It’s been a while, so I decided to try another tea from my stash of old oolongs. This time, I opened a pack of rolled Shan Lin Xi (aka: Shan Lin She, Sanlinxi, or any number of other things, but really 杉林溪烏龍). It’s getting difficult to remember which high mountain oolongs I got from where, but this one is likely a spring harvest of 2011 which I bought from a tea factory we visited on the side of Shan Lin Xi.


Honestly, I hadn’t heard of the mountain until I was there. I’m certain that I’d encountered its green rolled leaves before, but the mountain’s name is not nearly as well known as its nearby cousin in Nantou county, Dong Ding. As such, I think many exporters have labeled Shan Lin Xi as “Dong Ding”, the prestigious “Ali Shan”, or even the ubiquitous “High Mountain Oolong”, which technically refers to any oolong grown over 1000 meters up.

Despite its lack of fame, tea from this mountain often rivals the flavors and qualities of its neighbors and I think that tea shops are beginning to seek it out by name.

If you’re wondering, tea on Shan Lin Xi is still harvested carefully by hand by a group of tea ladies (and sometimes men, but the general thought is that men’s hands are too big and rough for such delicate work) early in the morning on beautiful foggy days. They wear traditional tea picker clothing that I imagine hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years, including a conical hat and brightly colored arm covers, possibly sewn by hand. The one relatively modern addition I saw was a small razor blade taped to the forefinger of each woman that enabled snipping the tiny leaf sets much more efficiently than just using the fingers alone.


For a quality rolled oolong, only the first (that is, the youngest) three leaves of the bush are picked, along with part of the stem. Sometimes four or even five leaves are included, at the discretion of the producer for that particular garden. Larger and older leaves are usually tougher and less flavorful so they are avoided, but depending on the weather and the altitude (as well as the relative quality of the tea being sought) the fourth leaf can still be quite good.


When I visited the harvest, they were picking four leaves because that spring had been unusually cold and even the fourth leaf was apparently small and delicate enough to add to the energy of the tea.

A fun thing to check when you’re done drinking some oolong is to very carefully pull out some leaves and look for the full leaf sets. Inevitably some single leaves will fall off the sets or break, but if you’ve got a good quality tea you should have no trouble finding stems with two, three, or four leaves still attached, as if it just came off the bush. It’s one of the amazing things about the gentle rolling process of oolongs that these small balls of tea can unfurl back into their original form months later undamaged.

Photo Oct 11, 11 55 09 AM

The leaf sets on this tea were great and intact. Once it really held some magical flavors, but unfortunately as with many of the teas in this set, the years have not treated it well.

The aroma was quite nice, actually, with many of the bright flowery scents that I remember. It may be just the roast, but I also get a hint of tropical fruit when I smell Shan Lin Xi. The first infusion I made was amber gold. When I pulled it out, I thought that perhaps due to its age I should try a slightly longer time than usual, so I did 1.5 minutes. That turned out to be a mistake. The flavor was quite strong and more than a little blunt (lacking in nuance).

Photo Oct 11, 11 39 47 AM

Hopeful since the tea had definitely retained its strength, I made a second infusion at 30 seconds. This one was a light gold with unfortunately almost no taste to speak of. When it had cooled a bit I could get the tropical aroma a bit in my mouth, but it was not impressive.

I tried two more infusions around 1 minute and allowed the tea to cool a bit before sipping (a common mistake I find when tasting tea is to sip it while it’s still too hot and your taste buds can’t distinguish the flavors). This was better, and I could now identify a high mountain oolong in the taste. Still, the flavors were light and really I think only a memory of what the leaves once held.

Photo Oct 11, 11 40 36 AM

Since it took me so many tries to find the right flavor, I may try this tea again just to be sure I’m not unfairly judging it, but I think this will go in the thumbs-down category. Oh well! Space for another delicious tea to fill my cabinet. And this time I’ll be more careful about drinking it before it gets too old!